Before the fear of war, fear of fracking in UkrainePeople in the embattled Donbass know the shale beneath their feet could be the real reason for conflict in their townsAugust 10, 2014 5:00AM ETby Anna Nemtsova @annanemtsovaSLOVYANSK, Ukraine — A hot July day, and the neighbors and children of a half-ruined five-story building on Bulvarnaya Avenue gathered around a bench for a long discussion of their daily fears.Locals seemed to have consensus on who’s at war: the U.S. and Russia over control of Ukraine, they all agreed. But even now, three months past the day the first shell fell on Slovyansk, they still had trouble comprehending why their green, sleepy hometown still was trapped in this conflict.Residents of the bombed building remembered how in April, local and Russian-assigned rebel commanders chose to set up the capital for their forces in this town.In a small village in the Donbass, Alexander, a former soldier, and Tatiana say they can’t afford gas, even though a gas line runs right by their home. Stanley Greene / NoorThe people of the Donbass, the country’s gritty industrial region in the east, were not naive. They realized that gas pipelines crossing the border with Russia and the shale gas fields near Slovyansk — with a potential reserve of about 3 trillion cubic meters of gas — were the cause of constant tension between Russia and Ukraine.But with pipes in their backyards or running right next to their homes, with their feet firmly on ground that stands over a vast shale deposit, they knew the struggle was not really over Ukraine itself. They were in the middle of a war about energy.Depending on the political winds blowing between Kiev and Moscow, the Russian gas giant Gazprom cut off natural gas to Ukraine or turned it on again. The shale gas is an important potential source for Ukraine and possibly southeastern Europe. If it proves possible to tap, Ukraine hopes this supply would undercut Gazprom’s monopoly, a move that could change Europe’s energy map and its political contours as well.That’s how, in this region, shale gas became a political and nationalistic issue as well as an economic one. A visitor to the Donbass in February or March wouldn’t have heard fear of war but fear of fracking, with residents fearful their land would be destroyed.